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Chris Thompson: Are church websites tracking you?

Chris Thompson

Are church websites tracking you?

An article by Adam Tanner in Forbes magazine online instantly got my attention. Titled “God Is Not The Only One Watching Over Your Church's Website” (July 28), it revealed astounding information about the extent to which many churches and other religious websites allow “trackers” to collect information about who visits them, and what they look at while there.

Tanner describes using the tracker discovery and blocking software Disconnect (disconnect.me) at the request of an Anglican priest friend. He discovered the priest’s church website contained 10 trackers. Going on, Tanner looked at various religious websites and found a wide range of examples of website trackers, from the Vatican, which had none, to 48-49 for the Church of Scientology. A synagogue in Manhattan had eight, a Protestant church organization revealed 14 and an Islamic shrine in Mecca had four.

Tanner obtained an eyebrow-raising quote from a well-known megachurch researcher. “It does seem invasive of personal privacy,” said Scott Thumma, a professor of the sociology of religion at Hartford Seminary. “I am absolutely certain that very few religious leaders know their sites have this form of tracking… nor do most small secular businesses. They barely comprehend the basics and haven’t even considered tracking technology or the ethical implications of these features with their members.”

Trackers and tracking data, rarely identified, are used by religious organizations and marketers to potentially target you for advertising in the future. After visiting the site, you might receive pitches for books, videos or contributions to specific causes based on the types of websites you visited.

Our security-conscious environment, spurred by recent revelations about the vast amounts of data the National Security Agency has been collecting, suggests people need to understand what they can expect when visiting church websites. Adept Internet researchers can build amazing profiles of who you are and what you do. I question, as did Adam Tanner and Scott Thumma, the necessity and validity of such tracking.

Before writing this article I selected a cross-section of Anchorage-area church websites -- including Catholic, mainline Protestant, evangelical, Orthodox, Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist and Baha'i. Analyzing each website using Disconnect, I found trackers are prevalent here, too. About half of the 34 local church websites I checked revealed one or no trackers, but the remainder had more than one. Saint John United Methodist Church had the most with 12, followed closely by First Church of Christ Scientist at 10. Saint John Orthodox showed nine. Interestingly, some of the Catholic churches had them, while others did not. Holy Cross Parish had seven, Our Lady of Guadalupe Parish showed six and St. Elizabeth Ann Seton had two, while St. Benedict’s Parish had none. For the Jewish community, the Lubavitch Center showed eight, while Temple Beth Shalom had seven. The Anchorage Islamic group had four, while the Buddhist group only had one. The Baha'i group showed none.

Anchorage’s two largest churches, ChangePoint and Anchorage Baptist Temple, showed two and one, respectively. The central Mormon website for Anchorage had four, as did Muldoon Community Assembly. Finally, of two Hillside churches, Hillside-O’Malley Seventh Day Adventist Church had eight trackers, while Trinity Presbyterian had three.

True North, a growing Anchorage church, uses technology heavily. “We don’t use a lot of tracking purposely,” said Brent Williams, True North pastor. Indeed, they don’t, as they only have one tracker. In a future article, I’m going to share the experience True North Church and ChangePoint have had with implementing apps to grow their churches.

Tracking is a relatively new technology for churches and website visitors to understand and deal with. Many churches are adopting privacy policies and posting them prominently on their websites. Here's one example of such a policy used by an Outside church (whose identity I’m not disclosing); identical statements appear on many church websites: “The Site may use cookie and tracking technology depending on the features offered. Cookie and tracking technology are useful for gathering information such as browser type and operating system, tracking the number of visitors to the Site, and understanding how visitors use the Site. Cookies can also help customize the Site for visitors. Personal information cannot be collected via cookies and other tracking technology; however, if you previously provided personally identifiable information, cookies may be tied to such information. Aggregate cookie and tracking information may be shared with third parties.”

The privacy of a person’s relationship with their religious organization is an assumed fundamental right. Churches need to post their privacy policies prominently where people can access them easily on their websites. I suggest you use a piece of software like Disconnect to unmask tracking on all websites you visit, but most importantly on church websites. Amazon.com exposed me to 10 trackers as I wrote this article. Tools like Disconnect can show you who the tracker is, and in most cases these trackers can be blocked.

Churches must avoid all appearances of wrongdoing, which can start with that first contact a potential visitor has via their websites. Newer and more sophisticated tools are on the way, which will make this write-up look like child’s play. I commend those churches with little or no tracking. Churches with heavy tracking scores need to take a deeper look to protect the interests of those they come in contact with.